Jessica Pratt must be a nice woman: a feet-on-the-floor, smiley, let’s-get-this-job-done kind of girl. Her recital at La Scala felt like watching your sis’ on stage. In fact, a lot of the audience were obviously friends or people who thought of her as a friend, and there was a standing ovation at the end which doesn’t happen in Milan unless, maybe, it’s a farewell performance by a great singer. So the atmosphere was odd with the subscription series devotees looking on perplexed at the adoration by those on their feet yelling ‘brava’ and taking photos. For Pratt isn’t a great singer, though a very good one, and the programme verged on the monotonous even if her coloratura and easy top are undeniably impressive.
Four opening Donizetti songs were routinely applauded, one by one, and unfortunately the habit continued throughout the programme. When this happened recently for Krassimira Stoyanova’s recital she immediately indicated, with an almost stern wag of her index finger, that this wasn’t wanted; Pratt curtsied. Donizetti was followed by some Bellini songs and ‘Ah, non credea mirarti’ from La sonnambula concluded the first part. The choice of songs included many (too many) that could showcase her top, but there is a zone just below that, approaching high-C, which oscillates and sounds tired. Pratt tended to break her train of thought during interludes from the piano where she would give a little smile or alter the position of her scarf, and she didn’t seem to be ‘into’ each piece. There were also some small problems with intonation. The recital platform is a harsh judge.
A group of Strauss and a group of French songs were sung in much the same way as the Italian section, with the colour of her voice almost unaltered as she passed from one song to the next, and from canzone to Lied to chanson. Her diction is slightly mushy, though in comparison to fellow-Aussie Joan Sutherland – a singer she is often compared to – her diction was crystal clear. But La Stupenda is La Stupenda.
Then the most extraordinary thing happened during the encores. It was as though someone had opened her cage and she’d taken flight. Most noticeably was her transformation for Bernstein’s ‘Glitter and be Gay’ which found her circling the piano, playing with her ring and necklace, collapsing in a heap on the stage, and ‘acting’! She also showed off her glorious trill, surely one of the best in the business. This was followed by Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ in which she seemed equally free. Now she was truly involved with the music.
Could it be that she was finally singing in her native tongue? I don’t think so; after years studying and living in Italy, the Italian language, at least, can’t be problematic for her. Maybe she felt as though she were auditioning for La Scala? Well, she’s already sung in the house a couple of times, so I think not. Or perhaps it’s just the recital platform itself. In their book The Art of the Song Recital, Shirlee Emmons and Stanley Sonntag wrote, “… a song recital is the equivalent in music of the one-man show in theatre… recital acting requires mastery of communication that is at once intense, sincere, and subtle.” A pianist looks across the stage, but a singer, without costume and sets, looks the audience in the eye and they stare back. It’s tough to pull off, especially in the somewhat daunting Milanese house, but the joy of seeing Jessica Pratt coming into her own almost made me want to stand and applaud too.